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An Army Of Thousands

From a reporter's point of view, watching IBM roll out anything -- a product line, a strategy, a message to the troops and the world at large -- is a fascinating thing to observe. Believe me when I say that the efficiency for which this company has been known for more than a half-century now is still firmly in place. And that is meant as a compliment: There's nothing like watching people who are good at what they do. (So that's why I watch so much pro sports. I always wondered.)

Potential customers in any number of midsized vertical markets are about to observe this efficiency at work. IBM thinks the SMB sector in general is the place to do some business for the next few years, and it's put out a lot of effort to mobilize its troops to try to take as much server market share in SMBland over the next few years as possible. But it's hardly a frontal, crass assault. Rather, IBM is going to leverage -- and try to grow -- its already-considerable partner relationships to create the next generation of applications and tools for its eServer iSeries line, and it has also used its PartnerWorld conference this week to take aim at its main competitors by dropping server prices and offering ISVs and resellers as much assistance doing their business as they can handle. It's a deliberate, back-loaded method of trying to boost the worldwide midrange market; rather than shoving hardware at customers on its own, it wants its thousands of partners to figure out the business needs of customers and get cracking on solving those, with IBM's help. The hardware sales and service contracts presumably will follow down the line. On top of all that, although the entire set of programs are pointedly platform-independent (hey, you can't fix a customer's AIX installation by jamming Linux down their throats), IBM continues to bet big on Linux as the growth wave for server OS movement.

The entire strategy deployment within a mere week or so was kind of breathtaking, in a way. This isn't a couple of platoons raiding the market's flanks to soften things up; it's the entire division coming over the hill all at once. And this is from a company that already beat out the HPs, Dells and other server competitors of the world for overall server revenue last year, in a market that grew nearly 8 percent. But it's not just revenue that IBM wants, it's increased market share, and it's willing to invest more than $100 million in its iSeries ISV support program alone to achieve that. Big armies can be beaten, as Waterloo, Gettysburg, and the Russian Front have shown throughout history. But superior firepower is not something to be ignored, either. IBM's plans are clear; now it's up to the rest of the server manufacturers to decide how best to contend with them.